MH17 court case will finally put truth on record

Shaun Walker Eastern Europe correspondent
Photograph: Alexander Khudoteply/AFP/Getty Images

Wash kits, bags of duty-free shopping and sections of overhead compartment lay strewn across the fields. In one spot, there was a stack of holiday reading. The body of a young Malaysian boy had landed outside a babushka’s cottage.

The aftermath of the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was a landscape of carnage and chaos. Parts of the plane and its contents landed across several kilometres of the normally peaceful Ukrainian countryside, where villages had already been disturbed by months of war and people now witnessed bodies falling from the sky.

Rescuers performed the grim task of sorting the human remains into colour-coded bags: black for whole bodies, green for parts. The smell, as the summer sun beat down, was overwhelming. Emergency workers loading body bags on to a train at Torez station had to tie bandanas over their faces to block it out.

The war in eastern Ukraine has claimed more than 13,000 lives, but the downing of MH17 remains one of its most horrific episodes: 298 people killed in a conflict to which they had no connection.

Ever since 17 July 2014, the Kremlin and its supporters have obfuscated and lied about what might have happened to MH17, and howled about a lack of evidence for separatist or Russian complicity. Now, investigators are confident they have enough evidence – at least in the case of the four men named on Wednesday – to secure a conviction in a Dutch court.

That decision is far from a “case closed” moment. The trial will not start until March, and almost certainly without the defendants taking part. There remain many unanswered questions about others who may have been involved and about the level of complicity of the regular Russian army. But it is a start.

In the days after the crash, in towns near the spot from where it was suspected the missile had been launched, some people whispered to me that they had seen an unusual piece of equipment, matching the description of a BUK system, drive past that day.

It was not hard evidence but even back then, all the circumstantial evidence pointed to a separatist or Russian missile, and there was never anything convincing to indicate a Ukrainian attack.

Because of the Kremlin’s need for plausible deniability of its military incursions into eastern Ukraine, many of the men on whom Russia relied were proxies not fully controlled by the Kremlin, and it is likely Vladimir Putin was as shocked as anyone when the plane came down.

After the incident, one of the Russian president’s favourite reporters wrote a strange story, which appeared as though it had been dictated, announcing Putin had launched an inquiry into who was responsible, and would disown the separatist movement if it had fired the missile. In the end, presumably when Putin was told the missile system had come from Russia, the Kremlin chose to deny all involvement.

Later, as journalists and open-source investigators pieced together evidence linking separatists with a BUK missile system brought across the border, Russian defence officials and media outlets launched version after implausible version of how the Ukrainians might have shot down the plane, changing the story each time their previous one was disproved.

Sometimes they came with maps, pie charts and satellite imagery that looked convincing but on closer inspection proved dubious or even fake. Other times, the attempts were laughably clumsy. One Russian tabloid ran an obviously fake “leaked recording” purporting to be a CIA agent operating under cover as a BBC journalist, arranging with another CIA agent to have the plane shot down. The Kremlin’s English-language station RT ran programme after programme accusing the western media of spin and lies over MH17.

Domestically, the propaganda worked: a survey found more than 80% of Russians believed Ukraine had shot down the plane. Only 1% believed Russian soldiers could be responsible. Many of the Kremlin’s foreign cheerleaders were also convinced.

However much evidence is presented in court, and even if convictions are secured, Russian authorities are likely to dismiss the conclusions as politicised, and continue to deny Russian and separatist involvement. The time for admitting to a horrendous error has long passed. It is likely nobody involved in the shooting down of MH17 will ever spend a day in prison.

But the court case will still be important, as the start of a process of closure, first and foremost for the relatives of the victims. It will also be important the court is able to set out all the evidence in public and ensure that even if nobody goes to jail, the truth about who was responsible will be preserved for the record.